The dancing body as Yantra

Image: Geoffrey Dunn

Image: Geoffrey Dunn

Yantras are intricate symbolic representations of deities in Indian contemplative traditions. Yantras encapsulate in a visual form the multiple, paradoxical dimensions of the archetypal spaces of the deities and invite us to dwell in their universes. Yantra contemplation is a structured practice, inadequately available through texts and largely transmitted through traditional inherited lineages of practice. In the temple dance traditions of India, the dancing body functions as a Yantra when it embodies symbolic modes.

Most Indian deities are depicted as dancers. Dance is the embodied language of their worlds and offers ways of experiencing the feeling constellations they hold. Dance transforms the complex symbolism of their worlds into feeling constellations (the Rasa experience)—a powerful way of accessing ‘meaning’ that is outside the realm of language and form, of our ordinary experiences. These practices are not naïve, intuitive or ‘creative’ in the sense of personal expression. They are deliberately structured spaces that have to be facilitated by teachers with experiential knowing of the nature of such interactions.

Just as we have a visual constellation in a Yantra, dance in these traditions have physical and feeling constellations. By this I mean that both the physicality and the feeling content that it generates are not easily recognisable and familiar unitary spaces of our ordinary lives. For example, the archetypal space of Ganesha is paradoxical at all levels. On the physical level itself Ganesha has the large head of an elephant on the small body of a young boy. The holding of paradoxical experiences—both physical and emotional—is characteristic of these spaces. The dance form asks for multiple initiations and events occurring simultaneously at various parts requiring a surrender of the mental need to sequence events in order to ‘understand’. The invitation is to bypass the demands of linearity and this is often the only way to dance these forms. Therefore the dance and the feelings are constellations, holding multiple, often paradoxical, events and experiences in the same moment.

Just as the Yantra does not illustrate the archetypal space, so also the function of dance in these modalities is not to ‘tell the story’ or illustrate narratives. From both the doers and the watchers it requires a surrender of demands for story. It asks for skills to recognise and practice forms that are not recognised or ‘seen’ by the usual discourse modalities. However, this is no way implies that these practices require no rigour or appear spontaneously in people with no knowledge or practice in the tradition. On the contrary, these practice traditions require the alignment of life and practice in rigorous ways in order to perceive the subtle structures of such modalities.

Dance and Yantra contemplation offer invitations to embrace life in all its complexity and feel the underlying essence of plurality. It suggests that it is only through passionate surrender to the manifold, that singularity is felt.

Padma Menon